Media Violence: a Target in Wake of Jonesboro

Critics decry fare on big and small screens, suggesting an indirect role in tragic shooting.

As the shock of the tragic shootings in Arkansas this week reverberates across America, the media have also become something of a target.

The daily doses of murder and mayhem heaped up on television and in movies are, at least for now, taking the brunt of the blame for the decision by two youngsters to put on fatigues, pick up a couple of guns, and fire at will at their classmates.

"It should shock us and maybe wake us up to recognize ... it's a cultural disease that we've got to address," said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) in the wake of the shootings that killed four children and one teacher.

Most media critics contend there's no direct link between fictional, on-screen violence and the horror in Jonesboro, Ark., at least not yet. But they are willing to lay part of the blame on the mass media for helping to nurture a culture in which violence is more tolerated than in the past.

For some educators, a bigger problem in the media is a lack of positive alternatives to physical aggression as ways to resolve conflicts. Because of that awareness, educators are helping a new generation of youngsters look at the media with a critical eye.

"It's part of the background, it's part of the culture in which we live that glamorizes the violence and makes it entertaining," says David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis.

Debate about the media's influence on viewers' violent and aggressive tendencies has raged since the 1950s. Of more than 3,500 studies, the vast majority have found some link between the amount of violence watched on television and increases in anti-social behavior.

"We know that media violence is most likely to provoke real-life violence when it's rewarded, seems realistic, and is directed against victims that seem appropriate," says Bob Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonprofit media think tank in Washington.

But the media critics' critics argue that such conclusions are based on research that is tenuous, at best. They ask questions such as: Does watching violent shows tend to make children more aggressive, or do aggressive children tend to watch more violent programs?

"I'm skeptical of all of the evidence," says Jonathan Freedman, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. "Particularly in light of the fact that violent crime is down in the last five years."

Mr. Lichter acknowledges the drop in the crime rate, but counters that the question is much more complex. "I would argue that broad social trends created more emotional disturbances in adolescence, which made kids more susceptible to media violence, more likely to act on their impulses," he says.

THAT raises a concern for many educators: The problem isn't so much what's on television, but what is not.

"The message [children] don't get is that the real heroes are not the Rambos of the world, but the people who search for nonviolent solutions to problems," says Linda Lantieri of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) National Center in New York, a nonprofit, school-based conflict-resolution program.

Sixth-grader Kevin Ervin knows that all too well. Five years ago, he says he was surrounded by violence - on television, in school, and in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Then the principal of his school was caught in drug-related crossfire and killed.

"I could look out my window and see the flowers and stuff right where he died," says Kevin. "I was really shocked."

At that young age, Kevin became determined to change things at his school. He became a leader in the mediation program RCCP introduced to help deal with the trauma. Today, at age 11, he's determined to change the world - from schoolyard fights to the negative, violent images he sees on television.

"In movies the superheroes shouldn't use violence; they should talk things out more," says Kevin. "Without the fear of violence, you can solve a problem more easily, and quicker."

Kevin is not daunted by arguments that the media are not likely to change as long as programming is tied to success in the ratings. He believes a change in the people will bring change on the screen.

"If it's grass roots, if it starts with us kids, we can spread it to other people," says Kevin, who'd now like to help the kids in Jonesboro.

While Kevin's ideas may sound young and idealistic, some scholars say the culture may finally be ready for them. "We've created very, very powerful technology, and when we start to realize how powerful and influential it really is, then I think we are led to the responsibility to manage it appropriately," says Dr. Walsh.

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